They call themselves the “Xinjiang 13.” They have been denied permission to enter China, prohibited from flying on a Chinese airline and pressured to adopt China-friendly views. To return to China, two wrote statements disavowing support for the independence movement in Xinjiang province.
They aren’t exiled Chinese dissidents. They are American scholars from universities, such as Georgetown and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who have suffered a backlash from China unprecedented in academia since diplomatic relations resumed in 1979. Their offense was co-writing “Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland,” a 484-page paperback published in 2004.
“I wound up doing the stupidest thing, bringing all of the experts in the field into one room and having the Chinese take us all out,” said Justin Rudelson, a college friend of U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former senior lecturer at Dartmouth College, who helped enlist contributors to the book and co-wrote one chapter.
The sanctions, which the scholars say were imposed by China’s security services, have hampered careers, personal relationships and American understanding of a large, mineral-rich province where China has suppressed separatist stirrings. Riots and attacks in Xinjiang in July left about 40 people dead.
“People who are engaged in perfectly legitimate scholarly pursuits can have their careers stymied if not destroyed,” said Tim Rieser, foreign policy adviser to Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate subcommittee that funds the U.S. State Department and who took up the cause of the Xinjiang experts.
‘Lack of Sympathy’
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Xi Yanchun, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, didn’t respond to written questions about the treatment of the authors.
Colleges employing the Xinjiang scholars took no collective action, and most were reluctant to press Chinese authorities about individual cases. Dartmouth almost fired Rudelson because he couldn’t go to China, he and Rieser said.
“As a group, most of us have been very disappointed in the colleges’ and universities’ lack of sympathy and support,” said Dru Gladney, an anthropology professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, who described himself and his American co-authors as the “Xinjiang 13.” Colleges are “so eager to jump on the China bandwagon, they put financial interests ahead of academic freedom.”
Almost 40,000 undergraduates from China study at U.S. universities, the most from any foreign country, according to the Institute of International Education, a New York-based nonprofit group. Chinese students typically pay double or triple the in-state tuition at public universities.
Campuses in China
Restrictions on academic freedom may become an increasing pitfall as U.S. colleges expand their ties with China, according to administrators involved in joint programs.
Duke University and New York University plan campuses in China. The University of Chicago opened a research center in Beijing in 2010, and Stanford University expects to follow next year. Excluding those initiatives, 18 foreign universities, including nine from the U.S., have branch campuses in China and Hong Kong, up from 14 in 2009 and zero in 2002, according to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a U.K. research group. The Chinese government, along with philanthropy and tuition, will pay for the New York University campus slated to open in Shanghai in 2013, the school’s president, John Sexton, said.
More than 60 U.S. colleges since 2004 have accepted tens of millions of dollars from the Office of Chinese Language Council International, a government-affiliated body known as the Hanban, to establish Confucius Institutes for the study of Chinese language and culture.
Along with Tibet, which also has an independence movement, Xinjiang is one of China’s most sensitive issues, Rudelson said. Nicknamed the “Pivot of Asia,” it borders Tibet and seven countries, five of which are Muslim, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. About half of its residents are Uighurs, who are Muslims.
The Chinese government has threatened the Uighurs’ way of life by encouraging ethnic Chinese to settle in Xinjiang, Gladney said. Uighurs have responded with bombings of buses and movie theaters, and attacks such as a July 18 assault on a police station in which 18 people were killed, according to official Chinese media. A group of Uighurs in exile said police fired on peaceful protesters. About 20 more deaths occurred on July 30-31 from a truck hijacking and a restaurant shoot-out, for which Chinese authorities blamed Uighur terrorists trained in Pakistan.
Some of America’s most prominent China scholars who explore hot-button issues are banned in Beijing. Perry Link, a professor emeritus at Princeton University who teaches at the University of California, Riverside, hasn’t been able to enter China since 1995, he said. Link smuggled a dissident astrophysicist into the U.S. embassy in Beijing during the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and helped edit the “Tiananmen Papers,” a 2002 collection of leaked internal documents.
Link’s co-editor on the “Tiananmen Papers,” Columbia University Professor Andrew Nathan, said he is also blacklisted. Robert Barnett, who directs Columbia’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program, ignored two warnings from Chinese officials that he should “lean more in China’s direction,” he said. He then encountered roadblocks from Chinese authorities dealing with Tibet when he applied for visas in 2008 and 2009, he said. He didn’t feel a need in his case to ask Columbia administrators for help and hasn’t sought a visa since, he said.
U.S. universities should fight for professors blacklisted by China, said Columbia President Lee Bollinger. He’s discussed Nathan’s situation with Chinese officials, who promised to “think about it,” he said.
Xinjiang had attracted little academic attention until the New York-based Henry Luce Foundation approved a $330,000 grant to the School of Advanced International Studies, or SAIS, at Johns Hopkins in 2000, said former foundation Vice President Terry Lautz.
“We expected that the project would fill a gap,” said Lautz, who described the book as “very scholarly, very thorough, very carefully written and researched.”
S. Frederick Starr, the volume’s editor, chairs the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at SAIS, which is based in Washington. Not a Sinologist himself, Starr advised Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush on Soviet affairs. With Rudelson, deputy director of the institute from 1999-2001, Starr recruited the book’s 15 co-authors: 13 Americans, one Israeli, and one Uighur.
Contributors were paid $3,000 apiece, Rudelson said. Each tackled a different aspect of Xinjiang history and society, from the province’s economy, ecology, education and public health to Islamic identity and the Chinese military presence. Starr and 11 authors were interviewed by phone for this article.
“I remember people saying at the beginning, ‘Do you think China will ban us?’” Rudelson said.
Starr decided against having Chinese co-authors because he didn’t want to cause them trouble with their government. He also informed the Chinese embassy at the outset about the book, giving assurances that the tone would be objective.
In response, the embassy “sent senior scholars who were obviously on a fact-finding mission,” Starr said. “We sat and had very pleasant conversations.”
On the eve of publication, Chinese authorities put out their own Xinjiang book, which was 70 pages and “obviously thrown together hastily,” Starr said. In a show of good faith, Starr distributed copies of the Chinese book at the publication party for the SAIS volume, he said.
Then the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences prepared a translation of the Johns Hopkins book for Chinese officials and scholars. In an introduction to the Chinese translation, Pan Zhiping, a researcher at the academy, portrayed “Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland” as a U.S. government mouthpiece.
Featuring “a hodgepodge of scholars, scholars in preparation, phony scholars, and shameless fabricators of political rumor,” the book by the Xinjiang 13 “provides a theoretical basis for” America “one day taking action to dismember China and separate Xinjiang,” Pan wrote.
Pan said in a telephone interview that he sent his introduction to Wang Lequan, the Communist Party chief of Xinjiang Province from 1994 to 2010, and a member of the Politburo. Wang, who conducted “strike hard” campaigns against separatists and introduced Mandarin into Uighur-language primary schools, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“I don’t really want to say” why the authors were barred, Pan said. “Maybe because they wrote the book, our government thinks they are not people that should be welcomed.”
Some of the authors are legitimate scholars, Pan said. “I’ll say to our leaders that they are our good friends, it will be useful to sit down and chat with them,” he said.
Sichuan Airlines, a government-owned regional airline, put six of the authors on a no-fly list in 2006, according to a document provided to Bloomberg News. In the “urgent” communication, the airline’s Beijing management office instructed sales representatives to inspect the scholars’ documents and prevent them from boarding. Cai Chao, an officer with the airline’s department of corporate culture, declined to comment on whether the authors were prohibited and said the document can’t be verified because it lacks “our company’s formal document number and stamp.”
As the co-authors began applying to return to China, their visas were denied without explanation. Their editor, Starr, failed to advocate for them, they said.
“If I had pulled together a book like this that got an entire generation of scholars on a certain topic banned from the country they research, I’d like to think I would step forward to organize a coordinated response,” said James Millward, a professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service who co-wrote two chapters on Xinjiang’s political history. Starr “just wanted nothing to do with it.”
The Luce Foundation’s Lautz said he urged Starr to “at least raise the issue” with China. “That didn’t really happen,” Lautz said.
Because he didn’t try to go to China, and because he was inundated with invitations from high-level officials there, Starr took longer than the authors to recognize the blacklisting, Starr said. Still, he wrote to the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., emphasizing that the book wasn’t political and seeking assurances that the visa denials were unrelated to it, he said.
Starr now realizes that Chinese diplomats and intellectuals who admired the book couldn’t control “the completely murky world of the security folks,” he said.
The School of Advanced International Studies had bigger priorities than academic freedom, he said.
“My sense is that SAIS itself, let alone Hopkins, was not prepared to go to the mat on this issue,” said Starr. “There are a lot of other interests besides this one in China.”
Johns Hopkins, based in Baltimore, and SAIS “stand for the free exchange of ideas and are proud of their record in general and in this case in particular,” spokeswoman Felisa Klubes said in an e-mail.
When two of the book’s authors sought assistance in 2006 from Professor David Lampton, director of SAIS’s China Studies Program and dean of the faculty, he persuaded the Chinese embassy to grant a visa to one of them, Klubes said. He didn’t help the other “because that person made what he felt was a weak case that the reason for the visa denial had to do with the book,” she said. She declined to name the two scholars.
Appeals to Colleges
Some co-authors looked to their own colleges. Stanley Toops, an associate professor of geography at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, whose chapters covered Xinjiang’s demography and water supply, applied for visas at the Chinese embassy in Washington and three of the five consulates in the U.S., to no avail, he said.
When he appealed to Jeffrey Herbst, then Miami’s provost, Herbst advised Toops to call his congressman, Toops said. “We have a lot of contacts with China,” Toops said. “We don’t want to mess this connection up.”
“I wasn’t able to offer much assistance” to Toops, Herbst said. “The Chinese government isn’t that accessible.”
While Herbst -- now president of Colgate University in Hamilton, New York -- promoted the study of China at Miami, he said he wasn’t worried that advocating for Toops would hurt the university’s burgeoning China connections.
Miami established a Confucius Institute in 2007. The Hanban supplied $100,000 in start-up funds, 3,000 volumes of books, audio-visual and multimedia materials, and one or two language instructors for whom it pays salaries and expenses, according to a contract obtained by Bloomberg News through a public records request. The Hanban has provided a total of $924,785 for the institute through April 2011, according to Robin Parker, the university’s general counsel.
Chinese undergraduate enrollment at Miami soared to 434 in August 2010 from 16 in August 2006, said David Keitges, director of international education. Non-Ohio residents pay $38,917 a year in tuition, fees, and room and board, versus $23,745 for residents, according to Miami’s website.
Rudelson, a graduate of Hanover, New Hampshire-based Dartmouth -- where he and Geithner studied Chinese and traveled to Beijing together -- had visited Xinjiang regularly since 1985. When he became a senior lecturer in Chinese at the college in 2005, one of his duties was to lead Dartmouth’s annual summer language-study program in China. Because he couldn’t get a visa, his department colleagues at Dartmouth warned him that he might be fired, said Rudelson and Rieser, Leahy’s foreign policy aide.
“At the end of the day, Dartmouth’s priority was that the summer program go forward,” Rieser said.
No Xinjiang Entry
Rudelson appealed to Geithner. Then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Geithner alerted his father, Peter Geithner, Rudelson said. Peter Geithner sits on the board of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, a New York-based non-profit group chaired by former U.S. chief trade negotiator Carla Hills. She raised Rudelson’s case with Chinese authorities, Rudelson said.
At the same time, Dartmouth “was working as hard as we could to get Justin back into China,” then-provost Barry Scherr said in an interview. Scherr arranged a meeting for himself and Rudelson with Zhou Wenzhong, who was China’s ambassador to the U.S., when Zhou spoke at Dartmouth’s business school in October 2008. The ambassador advised Rudelson to write to the Chinese embassy, explaining his role in the Xinjiang project, Rudelson said. He complied.
“I said, ‘I don’t support Uighur terrorism, I don’t support that Xinjiang should be an independent country,’” Rudelson said. Those are his real views, he said.
Two months later, Rudelson was granted a one-week visa to Beijing. He returned in 2009 with the language-study program. He reported his movements daily to the Ministry of State Security, and wasn’t allowed into Xinjiang, which the program had toured in prior years. He left Dartmouth July 1 to teach Chinese at the Dallas-based Hockaday School for girls from pre-kindergarten through high school.
Like Rudelson, Millward submitted an account of the issues surrounding the Xinjiang book to the Chinese embassy, including a statement that he didn’t favor independence for Xinjiang. He didn’t compromise his views, he said. The Georgetown professor was then granted a visa.
It proved only a temporary respite. In 2008, Millward and a colleague at Fudan University in Shanghai planned to collaborate on a course about the Silk Road. They would lecture in each other’s classrooms, share material on a computer bulletin board, and oversee joint student projects.
Millward applied for his visa, and didn’t hear back. Then came a terse e-mail from his Fudan colleague saying that, “due to circumstances,” Millward wouldn’t be able to teach there.
Instead of pushing back, Georgetown officials told Millward they would support his next visa application, he said.
“Georgetown didn’t see the problem letting this precedent stand, and they wouldn’t put anything on the line to help me,” Millward said.
Georgetown has done its “very best” for Millward and regrets his visa problems, said Samuel Robfogel, director of international initiatives in the provost’s office.
The ice is thawing for some of the Xinjiang 13. After extra screening procedures, Millward returned to China in July and August 2010 and July 2011, he said.
Shift to Taiwan
Former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Peter Perdue had to shift his research from Beijing to Taiwan in 2007 for a Fulbright fellowship awarded by the State Department because Chinese officials blocked his entry. The State Department doesn’t comment on individual cases, said spokeswoman Sharon Witherell. Now a professor at Yale, Perdue attended an August 2010 conference in Beijing, he said.
Others see no easing. Gladney’s invitation to speak at a conference in Tianjin, China in April was rescinded after a Communist party official vetoed his participation, he said.
A professor of Chinese history at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, Linda Benson contributed the chapter on minority education in Xinjiang. After writing a 2008 book about British women missionaries to China’s Muslim regions, she was invited to a May 2010 Christian-history conference in Gansu Province in northwest China. She was denied a visa.
The chapter written by Gardner Bovingdon, an associate professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, compared Uighur and official Chinese histories of Xinjiang. When Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s board met in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, in 2006, it asked Bovingdon to speak. He couldn’t get a visa. Goldman spokesman Stephen Cohen declined to comment on Bovingdon.
Bovingdon again sought a visa for a March 2011 excursion to Shanghai organized by an Indiana colleague and was rejected.
Unlike co-authors who disowned Xinjiang separatism, Bovingdon wouldn’t make such concessions, he said.
“My understanding of what they’ve done is essentially self-criticism, which is the order of the day in China for years: ‘Yes, I regret what I did,’” he said. “I would not have considered that a palatable way to go back.”